The usual smattering of amateur snaps, to accompany my piece on music in China. I'd first like to acknowledge Nick Frisch, a young American who accompanied me in Beijing and helped out in countless ways. I'm happy to recommend him to anyone who might ever want to work with him. Joanna Lee, Ken Smith, and Eli Marshall were also extremely helpful. Watch out for forthcoming recordings by Marshall's Beijing New Music Ensemble on the Naxos label.
July 03, 2008 | Permalink
"I love ... S[i]belius," Barack Obama said in Missouri yesterday. Well, not quite; what he said was, "I love Kathleen Sebelius." Two years ago, I delved into the question of whether Sebelius, the governor of Kansas, who is being mentioned prominently as a possible running-mate for Obama, could in any way be related to Jean Sibelius. Probably not, the Internet answered. Still, "Obama-Sebelius" is fun to say. The man who may be president has fairly impeccable musical tastes: he favors the Bach cello suites, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Coltrane and Miles Davis, and Stevie Wonder. Would he like Ohana?
July 01, 2008 | Permalink
Warmest birthday wishes to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the lodestar of turn-of-the-century music, who turns fifty today. Swedish Radio celebrated this scarcely credible landmark with a gala concert on June 18, and has now put up video of the event (start with "önskekonsert 080621"). It's a must-see, not only for compelling performances by the likes of Karita Mattila, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Kari Kriikku but also for zany historical footage of the "långhårig," baby-faced Salonen during his tenure at the Swedish Radio Symphony (1984 to 1995). Some of the material seems to derive from a TV variety or comedy show; see also Flying Salonen and Cirkus Salonen in the video archive. The Ojai bunny dance was not an isolated incident, it turns out. Amid the silliness, you get a sense of how forcefully Salonen campaigned for contemporary music from the beginning; the opening montage suggests that he actually got Magnus Lindberg's ear-splitting Kraft on TV (see 3:20). One regret: I was hoping for a surprise cameo by S. Epatha Merkerson.
Photo: Micke Grönberg / Swedish Radio
June 30, 2008 | Permalink
Medici.tv, affiliated with the classical-video company Medici Arts, is now offering free broadcasts online. At the moment you can watch various events from the Aspen Festival, notably David Zinman conducting the premiere of John Harbison's Great Gatsby Suite; streaming tonight is Peter Sellars's production of Mozart's Zaide from Aix-en-Provence. You can also download items from Medici's back-catalogue, at the reasonable price of 7 euros each; the online stock includes Frank Scheffer's film of Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet, the same director's excellent Elliott Carter documentary A Labyrinth of Time, and Bruno Monsaingeon's mesmerizing portrait of Sviatoslav Richter ("There are two things that I hate: analysis and power").
June 27, 2008 | Permalink
The Baltimore-based new-music duo Hybrid Groove Project may be relatively new to the scene, but they're poised to stir up some major-league, headline-grabbing, Daniel J. Wakin trouble with their explosive summer jam, "HGP Anthem." Emulating epic hip-hop feuds on the order of Jay-Z vs. Nas, Tupac vs. Biggie, and Wagner vs. Brahms, HGP is calling out and taking down rivals such as the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), So Percussion, MTT, Bang on a Can, Alarm Will Sound, Eighth Blackbird, Levine and the BSO, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and Kronos, among others. Wisely, they don't mess with Esa-Pekka. You may have to listen several times to catch all the in-jokes. I especially like the chorus.
June 24, 2008 | Permalink
This Talking Points Memo video of White House spokespeople and affiliated pundits responding to Scott McClellan's memoir What Happened is more or less the funniest thing I've seen or heard since Arnie Schoenberg and His Second Viennese School. It's a tall order to find musical justification for posting such off-topic material, but I'll give it a shot. The comedy lies, I believe, in the fact that not only do these self-styled "moderately talented people" keep saying the same things over and over, but they utter them in strikingly similar speech-melodic patterns. I could cite Janáček's pioneering work on speech-melody in the Czech language, but in this company it seems more fitting to mention Harry Partch. Notice the recurrent falling intervals of "puzzled," the melancholy stepwise-descending motif of "Not the Scott we knew" (or "doesn't sound like Scott"), the fairly consistent tuning of the word "stumped." OK, I tried....
Update: Martin Schneider at Emdashes has written out a libretto for a McClellan opera, which I'd prefer to call Puzzled.
June 16, 2008 | Permalink
A fairly huge crowd materialized in the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center for Bang on a Can's twelve-hour new-music marathon, the inaugural event in this year's River to River Festival. Suffering from a summer cold and middle age, I made it through only the first five and a half hours, and missed, with much regret, Stockhausen at sunrise. Steve Smith has the full report; see also Justin Levine, Lauren Cartelli, Darcy James Argue, Bruce Hodges, and Brooklyn Vegan (with photos of the mosh-pit moment). More shots below.
June 01, 2008 | Permalink
It's always hazardous to open mail when there's work to do. Two items — the second volume of Prokofiev's diaries, from Cornell University Press, and a two-CD set of the music of Johanna Magdalena Beyer, from New World Records — have thrown me off course over the past couple of days. The Prokofiev diaries, first of all, are totally riveting. Although the composer could be drearily self-centered — what genius isn't? — he sharply observed the world around him and his prose has considerable flair. This volume cover the years 1915 to 1923, when Prokofiev witnessed the Russian Revolution, tried his fortunes in America, and wound up in the Russian émigré community in Paris. Here are two quick teasers. First, from the end of 1917:
The month's end passed in transcribing Seven, They Are Seven and contemplation of an engrossing new idea: Lina Collini mentioned in passing one day that she was planning to leave Russia for America — and it suddenly struck me that there was no need for me to stay in Russia either. In the flow of idle chatter this tiny spark was seemingly extinguished almost at once, but in fact what appeared at the time to be no more than a passing remark proved to be explosive material that in an instant flared up into a conflagration. To go to America! Of course! Here was wretchedness; there life brimming over. Here, slaughter and barbaric rhetoric; there, cultivated life. Here, shabby concerts in Kislovodsk; there, New York, Chicago! No time for hesitation. In the spring I will go. If only America does not turn against a Russia that has now abandoned the war! Such was the flag under which I greeted the New Year. Surely it will not disappoint my hopes?
Some months later, in San Francisco, Prokofiev finds himself under interrogation from American immigration authorities:
"What is this?"
"Did you write it yourself?"
"I did, on board ship."
"Can you play it?"
"Play it, then."
On the piano in the ship's saloon, I played the main theme of the Violin Sonata on its own, without accompaniment. It was not appreciated.
"Can you play Chopin?"
"What would you like me to play?"
"The Funeral March."
I played four bars. The official evidently enjoyed it.
"Very good," he said, with feeling.
"Did you know for whose death it was composed?"
Prokofiev is detained for a couple of days, and another conversation ensues:
"Have you ever been in prison?"
I could go on — it's an amazing book and a precious historical resource.
Johanna Beyer is an early twentieth-century American modernist who is slowly emerging from the shadows. I first encountered her music on a fine New Albion CD by the pianist Sarah Cahill. At the time, it didn't make a strong impression — the Nine Preludes by Ruth Crawford Seeger were for me the disc's main draw — but I'm beginning to see why Beyer has cast a spell over various latter-day composers, musicians, and scholars, among them Cahill, Charles Amirkhanian, Larry Polansky, John Kennedy, and Amy Beal. Beyer was born in Leipzig, in 1888, and came to America in the twenties. She took up composing at a relatively late date, and was heavily influenced by "dissonant counterpoint" and other ultra-modern techniques espoused by Charles Seeger, Henry Cowell, and Ruth Crawford. The last-named was plainly her primary model. The two string quartets on the New World set — evocatively played by members of the Astra Chamber Music Society, of Melbourne — are closely allied to the Seeger Quartet, a masterpiece of twentieth-century chamber music. But Beyer has her own voice. Glissandos, cluster chords, obsessive ostinatos, and complex tempo structures are woven together with startling bursts of lyricism and flashes of wit. Polansky properly describes the finale of the First Quartet (1933-34) as "nothing short of astonishing," a prophecy of minimalist and post-minimalist music of the seventies and eighties. I imagine Kyle Gann having a field day with it.
The historian in me is especially fascinated by two works for chorus entitled The Federal Music Project and The Composers Forum Laboratory. In researching my book I spent some days going through the records of the Federal Music Project at the National Archives, studying that brief but remarkable period when the federal government funded orchestras, opera houses, music-education projects, and, yes, contemporary-music concerts. I found Beyer's name in the files of the Composers' Forum-Laboratory, which gave composers a platform to present their work and then obliged them to answer questions from the audience. The latter part of the process could prove exasperating, as in Beyer's Q&A of May 20, 1936:
Q: Really, Miss Beyer, is there any beauty in your pathological sounds and noises? Or does it appeal to some other sense?
A: Apparently it is nothing but noise.
The Laboratories drew forth many complaints about supposed excesses of dissonance and rhythmic complexity, although sometimes a tonally oriented composer got a grilling from the modernist faction, as in this session with Henry Holden Huss:
Q: Why does Mr. Huss prefer to retain the "major triad formula" as late as 1935?
A: You take two tones and add them to a third and you have a star, and you must look to the stars and heaven.
With the permission of New World, I'm supplying audio of the beginning of Federal Music Project, which was written in 1936, in the heady early days of the federal arts projects. Here's the text: "I know of an active bee-hive, / it buzzes and bubbles all day, / is full of creative ideas, / a nucleus of a future so gay!" You'll need headphones or good speakers to catch the low buzzing at the outset.
There's something intriguingly mournful about the music, as if Beyer already sensed that this "future, oh, so bright" — to quote the last lines of her text — would never come to fruition. And doesn't the repetition of "I know, I know" sound eerily like the flute and violin lines in the opening seascape of Peter Grimes, written some years later? Beyer died in total obscurity in 1944, her last years made horribly difficult by ALS, and it's a wonderful thing that she's seeing the light of day again.
May 22, 2008 | Permalink
A Mahler-loving cat showed up at a recent performance by the Israel Philharmonic. Nancy Pelosi, who was in the audience, proposed that the cat be named Zubin. Incidentally, a source at the Met tells me that Pelosi is a fan of Philip Glass and attended a performance of Satyagraha this spring. One might detect a trace of her enthusiasm in a speech she gave on the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
May 20, 2008 | Permalink
Wilfrid Mellers, a wise, passionate, deeply generous writer on music, has passed away at the age of ninety-four. I treasure his books on Percy Grainger and Poulenc, his twentieth-century survey Caliban Reborn, his not entirely convincing but always captivating studies of Dylan and the Beatles, and, above all, his 1965 work on American classical and jazz composers, Music in a New Found Land. It's a scandal that the last-named has long been out of print. I've quoted before and I'll quote again Mellers's visionary salute to Morton Feldman:
The tones [in Durations 1-5] are always isolated, immensely slow, and delicately soft, and when instruments play together, because the durations overlap, the simultaneous sounds are often unisonal or concordant. An infinitely slow drone on muted tuba, a major third on muted string harmonics, sound as though the players are creating the tones out of the eternal silence, and we are being born afresh in learning to listen to them. Music seems to have vanished almost to the point of extinction; yet the little that is left is, like all of Feldman's work, of exquisite musicality; and it certainly presents the American obsession with emptiness completely absolved from fear. The music's passive, rarefied tenderness seems to have the therapeutic property of making us saner, rather than more mad. Since the question of sanity or madness can hardly be decided, however, without some human criterion as reference, it may be that the cycle of "consciousness" has, willy-nilly, started again.
In Mellers's honor, a bit of Grainger's "Shallow Brown," with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Monteverdi Choir and English Country Gardiner Orchestra (Philips/ArkivMusic):
May 19, 2008 | Permalink
An e-mail from Bridge Records alerted me to the ostensibly surprising fact that when the Alabama Symphony played an all-contemporary program of Paul Lansky's Shapeshifters, Jonny Greenwood's Popcorn Superhet Receiver, and Poul Ruders's Light Overture last month, the concert was completely sold out. Michael Huebner reports for the Birmingham News. You might attribute the success principally to Greenwood's Radiohead celebrity, but I'd mention three other factors: 1) under the direction of Justin Brown, the Alabama Symphony is playing at a very high level; 2) they're putting a great deal of imagination into their programming; 3) tickets were $15. The orchestra has an excellent program this weekend: Pärt's Cantus, Sibelius's Violin Concerto (with Pekka Kuusisto, who right now is playing this piece more vibrantly than anyone on the circuit), and Walton's irresistible First Symphony. The 'heads are in Texas.
News from Minnesota: Osmo Vänskä, the genius music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, has been composing a bit in recent years, and William Schrickel, who leads the Metropolitan Symphony, another Twin Cities orchestra, commissioned Vänskä to write a piece titled The Bridge, which will be played this Sunday, May 18th. The piece is connected to the tragic collapse of the I-35W bridge last summer. It is also designed as a bridge to the Mahler Seventh Symphony, which will directly follow it on the program. Schrickel sees quite a bit of Vänskä in his day job: he is the Minnesota's assistant principal bassist.
May 14, 2008 | Permalink
Rite of Spring. The New Yorker, May 19, 2008.
More Igormania is on the way: the Michael Clark Company's Stravinsky Project comes to Lincoln Center in early June. Bob Shingleton caught the show in Norwich. The entire Columbia Records Stravinsky Edition can be obtained for $31 on Amazon, though it will be out of stock until June 14.
May 12, 2008 | Permalink
This 1994 recording of Domus playing Fauré's Piano Quintets is exquisite in every respect, and probably brings you about as close as you can get to hearing the imaginary music of Vinteuil in Proust. It's overpriced on Amazon; go to ArkivMusic instead. Reminder: I have a list of current CD picks in the left column.
May 11, 2008 | Permalink